The property included a rickety set of stairs down to the beach and its own small dock. The huge, old house was equally rickety. He hadn’t thought of selling it though, not once. He couldn’t, not without far more guilt than he was equipped to handle.
He was glad for that now, because he’d needed out of San Francisco after his life had detonated. On his last case, he’d been part of the unit that had been tasked with gathering evidence against Senator Robert Danielson, who was accused of murdering three young women over the course of a year.
From the beginning, the evidence had been shaky at best: a few emails, texts, and phone calls between the senator and the women. A handful of questionable expenses. But Danielson was respected, and, by all accounts, also a decent guy. During four months of investigation, not one person had said a negative thing about him other than the guy worked too hard. Eventually, due to lack of evidence, the case against him had been dropped.
Two days later, the senator’s pretty, young aide, Isabel Reyes, had floated in on the tide of the San Francisco Bay.
The senator had been found only an hour after, hanging from the rafters.
The press had gone ape-shit that no one had seen this coming, questioning the integrity of everyone involved with the case, including the judge, the DA, and the entire investigative team—which Luke had led.
He still felt sick about Isabel Reyes’s death. He couldn’t get past his gut feeling that he should have known. Disgusted with the job, the system, and most especially himself, he’d put in for all twenty-one days of the vacation he’d accumulated and left the city, hoping to find his sanity. He’d come here to Lucky Harbor, planning to sleep for at least a week and then maybe have some pizza and catch a few games, and then sleep for another two weeks. He’d wanted to do that free of other people, especially recently dumped-by-text renters.
“Okay,” he said, “so Marshall’s gone, and you’re…?” He paused for her answer, thinking that the only acceptable response would be “leaving now.”
“I have a place to move to,” Hazel Eyes said.
“Probably.” She paused. “Hopefully. Soon as I hear back from the applications I put in today, I’ll know more. Not that this is your problem, of course.” She hopped off the barstool, and Luke told himself that the reason his body tightened was relief that she was on the move. He wasn’t going to have to forcibly remove the sexy, crazy, naked lady from his house.
But instead of gathering her things and going, she walked to the refrigerator and pulled out some ingredients. “You like turkey?” she asked.
He blinked at the quick subject change. “Yeah.”
“Your stomach’s growling.” Quick as lightning, she put together a thick turkey sandwich with some fixings and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said in surprise.
“No problem.” Moving to the counter, she stared out the window.
The hem of her sweater covered her ass, even most of her thighs, hugging her curves for all it was worth. Her legs were long, toned. Bare. Working at not imagining running his hands up their entire length, he shoved in a big bite.
Still looking out the window, she set one foot on top of the other and cocked a hip, silent.
“I think there are boxes in the garage,” he said, trying to be helpful. Hell, he’d even carry her shit out for her, no problem.
More silence, which was normally his thing. He was good at it too. But when she finally spoke, the words stabbed him.
“Dumped and made homeless in the same day,” she said softly. “That’s got to be some kind of record for pathetic, right?”
Luke let out a breath, pushed the now-empty plate away, and tried to harden his already stone heart. That his ex-renter had screwed her over wasn’t his problem. He was temporarily off duty from solving other people’s problems. Sure, she’d had a tough break, but the cold, hard fact was that lots of good people got screwed over every day of the week. He couldn’t care right now. He hadn’t slept in days, and he was going to pass out on his feet if he didn’t get horizontal in the next five minutes. “Look, stay tonight. It’s not that big of a deal.”
She didn’t move from her perch. “Thank you, but no. I’ll be okay.”
Luke followed her gaze to the ancient Toyota truck parked at the curb. He’d been a detective long enough to know exactly what she was thinking—she was going to sleep in her truck. “Seriously. Stay one more night.”
She turned and looked at him then, eyes bright with pride. “Don’t you dare feel sorry for me.”
He had a sister. A mom. He knew how to swim through the shark-infested waters of a woman’s psyche without getting injured. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “I feel sorry for me. The sandwich was great, and I’m not much in the kitchen. Even if I was, I’m too tired to go to the store for stuff. If you leave now, I’ll go hungry tomorrow.”
She stared at him for a long moment. Luke didn’t have to work at looking genuine, because he’d spoken the utter truth.
“You won’t be sorry,” she finally said. “Or hungry.” And then she vanished down the hall.
Luke didn’t like to disagree with a pretty woman, but he had a feeling she was going to be dead wrong on at least one of those points.
Luke followed his unintentional houseguest to the master bedroom.
His grandma’s old room.
Clamping down on the memories, he stopped in the doorway, happy to note that it didn’t look like his grandma’s room. There were clothes and shoes and bottles and jars of stuff everywhere. It looked like a girl-bomb had gone off.
“Did I tell you that I love your house?” Sexy-Crazy-Nearly-Naked Tenant asked, coming out of the attached bathroom.
But she was no longer nearly naked. She’d buttoned up and added a pair of jeans. Her feet were still bare though. Her toes were painted sky blue, with little daisy decals on the big toe.
And he had no idea why he was checking out her toes.
Twisting up her hair, she sailed by him and out the bedroom door, once again leaving him to follow after her.
“So you filled out some apartment applications?” he asked.
“Yes.” She walked into the kitchen, where she grabbed a watering can from beneath the sink and filled it.
“Any background checks?”
“I ran one on Marshall before he moved in here,” he said.
She stared at him. “You did?”
He nodded. Being a detective, he often dealt with the dregs of society, the bottom feeders and the ones who’d sell their own mother’s soul to the devil. In Luke’s world, trust was not a given; it was earned. “If I’d known you were living here, I’d have done one on you too.”
“Oh.” Her voice was different now, which had him taking another look at her. She’d dropped eye contact and was biting her lower lip.
Ah, shit. She had something to hide. “Would that have been a problem?” he asked.
“No. Nope, not at all.”
He raised a brow.
“Really,” she said.
“The search program I have on my laptop is pretty intense,” he said.
“Intense, like…you could see my third grade teacher and when I stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy?” she asked. “Stuff like that?”
“Yeah,” he said dryly. “Stuff just like that.”
“Fine. Do it.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ali Winters. Ali with an ‘i.’”
He pulled his laptop out of his duffle bag. “Let’s see what comes up.”
“Sure.” She shifted back and forth on her bare feet while he worked. He hadn’t been kidding; this program was pretty damn invasive. It came in handy when he was hunting down suspects. Not so handy for running a background check on cute, hazel-eyed houseguests, because he was bound to find out far more than he needed.
The basics began to spit out, including a list of her previous known addresses, her age, job history, public records, etc. Ali-with-an-i was twenty-six, and her listings for previous addresses were fifteen deep, most in and around White Center and Burien, both just below Seattle. A longer look told him that ten of them had been before the age of eighteen.
She’d been questioned by the police a handful of times, thanks to being related to a Harper Winters—her sister—who’d been arrested for petty theft and assault after stealing a Peeping Tom neighbor’s binoculars and beating him over the head with them. And then again when her mother—Mimi Winters—had threatened a lowlife ex’s life by chasing him down the street with her car.
Ali herself had steered clear of any arrests. She’d gone to a junior college and worked as a singer in a casino/hotel lounge and at a flower shop.
“Is it bad?” she asked, leaning over his shoulder, seeming torn between wanting to know and not wanting to know.
He craned his neck and looked at her. “You’re a singer?”
“Not even a little bit. I gave up the singing job when I got jumped by a Cher impersonator for forgetting the words to that ‘do you believe in life after love’ song. But I got to keep my clothes on, and the tips were good. Plus I got my associate’s degree with no student loans.” She moved into the living room and began to water the plants scattered throughout the big, open space. There were several large ceramic pots on either side of the couch and beneath the picture windows. Several smaller pots were scattered around on shelves and the coffee table.
This was new. Luke’s grandma had been warm and funny and bossy as hell, fiercely loving all who crossed her path—except plants. Plants she’d killed with just a look, including the supposedly invincible cacti. “Where did these come from?” he asked.
“Me,” Ali said. “This house is so wonderful, all old and filled with character and charm…” Her smile was a little wistful. “But it needed…life. Besides feeding you, I’ll take care of the plants.”